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Behind the scenes, Biden has grown anxious about re-election effort

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was seething.

In a private meeting at the White House in January, allies of the president had just told him that his poll numbers in Michigan and Georgia had dropped over his handling of the war between Israel and Hamas.

Both are battleground states he narrowly won four years ago, and he can’t afford any backsliding if he is to once again defeat Donald Trump. He began to shout and swear, a lawmaker familiar with the meeting said.

He believed he had been doing what was right, despite the political fallout, he told the group, according to the lawmaker.

Asked about the episode, Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said: “President Biden makes national security decisions based on the country’s national security needs alone — no other factor.”

For months, Democrats have watched the 2024 campaign unfold with rising alarm as the sitting president struggles to gain ground against his defeated predecessor. Frustrations rippling through the party have reached the top, with Biden at times second-guessing travel decisions and communications strategies that have left much of the electorate clueless about his record, interviews with nearly 20 lawmakers, present and past administration officials and Biden allies show.

The starting gun for the general election campaign fired last week as Biden wrapped up the Democratic nomination. Yet he is still searching for ways to impress upon voters that he deserves a second term by dint of policy achievements that eluded past presidents.

History suggests it will be tough for him to recover. Biden’s 38% approval rating at this stage in the calendar is lower than that of the last three presidents who went on to lose re-election: Trump (48%), George H.W. Bush (39%) and Jimmy Carter (43%), according to Gallup survey data.

Biden has long believed that he isn’t getting sufficient credit for an economy that has created 15 million new jobs. Looking to reach distracted voters who may be tuning in, he told his speechwriters before the State of the Union address to tone down some of the lofty rhetoric and plainly lay out what he’s done, a person familiar with speech preparations said.

During internal discussions, he’ll press aides about which parts of his record to highlight in different states, said a second person who is familiar with the matter.

Surrounded by protective aides who want to minimize the chances of a flub, the 81-year-old president has chafed at restraints that he sees as counter to his natural instincts as a retail politician, a third person familiar with internal discussions said.

He has felt cocooned at times and has been eager to get out more, meet voters face-to-face and take the fight directly to Trump, said the third person and a fourth also familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy and the president’s private views.

There are signs that some within his party are also losing patience with him.

“Biden stood up in front of the whole world and said, ‘I’m ready. I’m the guy who can take down Donald Trump,’” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. “So, he goddamn well better do it. We don’t have time for him to be worried about whether or not people are saying things right or the poll numbers are where they should be. I want focused energy and not defensive anger.”

Eminently beatable

Biden has on occasion directed his ire at his tightknit senior staff. Given the successes he has had in passing consequential bills and improving the economy, Biden was irritated that his message wasn’t sinking in with the broader electorate, the sources said.

Eight months before the election, Biden’s campaign team remains confident about his chances.

A memo that campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez sent out in December suggests that it was always the plan for Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to start “ramping up” campaign travel early this year — something that is now happening.

Since the State of the Union speech, Biden has traveled to Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. He’ll be heading to Nevada and Arizona early this week.

“The president and his advisers have all been eager for him to be out there more and planned for that to take place at the start of the election year, as has been the norm for past incumbents seeking re-election,” the second person familiar with the matter said.

Biden aides see Trump as an eminently beatable and deeply flawed opponent. In a recent campaign call with reporters, Jen O’Malley Dillon, the campaign chairwoman, said Trump appears to have little interest in attracting voters beyond his most faithful base.

“We know that he lost in 2020,” she said. “In order to win, he’s got to expand his base of voters to find new people to be with him. And that is not something he’s shown that he’s really focused on.”

‘A little mad at himself’

At times, Biden gets suggestions that conflict with one another. Some advisers have told him he should walk faster out of concern that his gait feeds impressions that he’s too old. And yet the White House is sufficiently worried about him tripping that he has taken to boarding Air Force One via a shorter staircase through the belly of the plane, forgoing the iconic image of the president waving from the main doorway high above the tarmac.

“He’s probably a little mad at himself for not being more forceful with the staff,” a person familiar with internal discussions said.

Privately, Biden questions whether he should trust his gut instincts over the guidance coming from the array of advisers tending to his political interests, this person added.

“The man’s been successful for decades in Congress and became vice president and president,” said a fifth person, who formerly served in the Biden administration. “If you try to change the person, you’re making a mistake. Let the president go out there and do his thing.”

‘A failure of communication’

A consensus of Democratic officials is that Biden needs an army of surrogates to spread the word that his record has improved American lives in concrete ways. He can’t carry the message alone.

Andre Dickens, the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, said that Trump’s bluster tends to soak up the attention, but Biden’s record is actually making city streets safer. He cited spending bills that enabled his city to pay retention bonuses to police officers and underwrite youth programs that help to curb crime.

“Coming after a blowhard like Trump who tells you every day what he hates and what he likes, Biden is … soft and calm and getting the work done,” Dickens said.

Letting voters know is “the job of the mayor and county leaders who have benefited from the Biden administration’s policies,” he added.

Simplicity might be Biden’s most promising approach, some of his allies said. Package his record as part of an American renaissance — a success story that is putting money into peoples’ pockets, they suggested.

Mary Landrieu is a former Democratic senator from Louisiana and a Biden supporter. Asked about Biden’s inability to get credit for legislation meant to revive American high-tech manufacturing and upgrade the country’s roads and bridges, she said: “I think it’s actually a bit of a failure of communication on the part of the White House.”

Nearly $4 billion in clean energy projects are underway in Louisiana under a bill that Biden ushered into law called the Inflation Reduction Act, a title that doesn’t capture the measure’s real purpose.

“There’s a real story to tell,” Landrieu said. “It’s a winning message and it’s about jobs, prosperity and evolution. If that message can be communicated, I think the American people will respond.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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